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Ham and Eggs: On Experimental Film and Foreignness

Margaret Schwartz

Americans don't like to feel estranged at the movies. The movies are our home turf

At first I thought it was a strange question: "So, how do you like our Argentine breakfast?" I would glance at my toast and smile broadly. After all, a common saying has it that God is Argentine: maybe He also invented toast? After only a few days in Buenos Aires but innumerable repetitions of the same question, I had it figured out. They wanted to know if I missed eating ham and eggs every morning. To justify this perception, and many other convictions of varying accuracy about American culture, they cited the movies.

Travelers who go to Buenos Aires, not just for the exchange rate but for the "experience", are often motivated by heartwarming scenes of intercultural exchange: they hope to discover that despite our superficial but delicious differences (usually in the quality of local food and wine) we are all reassuringly the same at heart. I have participated in several such discussions while in Argentina and can report with confidence that yes, we are all the same: we have all seen the same movies.

I don't mean to say that I haven't experienced the pleasures of international fraternity (or sorority) here in Buenos Aires. I only mean to say that when we want to explain ourselves to each other, we use the movies — because if you can start with a picture you've already gained the proverbial thousand words.

I don't care about Nike or McDonalds; the biggest American export here is Hollywood, and their product is fantasy. Thanks to cable and satellite television, people around the world can bring that fantasy to their own living rooms. And, the flow goes from the center to the periphery, which is to say that everybody is looking at what the US fantasizes for itself, but never the other way around.

The image appears in this context as a sort of science fiction mind meld, an instantaneous and intimate snapshot of another culture. Not it's everyday reality, but its most treasured daydreams. Hence all my troubles with ham and eggs.

I originally planned to write this column about Thaw, the annual experimental film festival at the University of Iowa, which this year happened from April 11-13. I wanted to write about the way many of my highly intelligent and culturally savvy friends reacted when I told them my plans for Thaw: invariably they said things like, "Isn't that kind of adolescent?" or "God those people are so pretentious." I was interested in this kind of knee-jerk reaction to what seemed to me a good if often mislaid intention: to expand the art of filmmaking, and to challenge Hollywood's stranglehold on the fantasy machine. Where does this scorn come from in otherwise open-minded people? What do we have to fear in experimental film?

Then I went to Argentina and felt for the first time just how ambivalent my relationship is with that Hollywood stranglehold. In Buenos Aires I felt an overwhelmingly physical sense of alienation. Being in another culture has to do first of all with basic human necessity: the water, the food, the space you occupy, and the city you live in. All of these things are quite literally strange beyond words, and yet they are as essential as the very air you breathe. When I felt lonely and isolated, when I longed for a condiment even slightly more exotic than mayonnaise (black pepper would've done it), when I just wanted to hear someone speaking English I would crawl into my bed, tune into cable, and watch movies.

And they were bad movies, I mean bad movies. In every single one of them conviction wins out over common sense, morning consumption of eggs and pork products is staggering, everybody grows as a person or else receives just punishment, and even the humblest of houses is clean and spacious with an acre of well-tended lawn. It was pure Hollywood, and I ate it up, my fists clutching the blankets when the bad guys struck a blow, my eyes brimming with genuine emotion at the moment of release. What I mean is that physicality, starting with the body and its needs, is heavy. It's irreconcilable to human desire, it is mute and irrevocable. Movies, even bad ones, are a chance to escape oneself through one's eyes. In my case, they let me make it all the way back home in an instant.

I'm not sure if an experimental film would have had the same effect. I wanted comfort and predictability, two words that do not exactly spring to mind when talking about experimentation. On the other hand, the only reason that Hollywood is comforting is that it is usual, it is what we have come to expect from American movies. What would happen if we expected something different? Is that what it means to be "experimental"? And if so, what is it that we have to lose, what is it we have to fear?

For me, experimental film means an effort to make fantasies that deviate from those produced by the mainstream; in this case, Hollywood. I consider experimental films those that also challenge received notions of plot, action, and character. In the case of Thaw, most of the films are short, ranging from a few minutes to three-quarters of an hour.

Thaw is unusual because it is a festival exclusively devoted to experimental film and because it is entirely run by graduate students in the department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. They screen the submissions, plan the program, choose and invite the jurors, and organize fundraising events throughout the year. It is a tremendous amount of work, especially considering that all of the volunteers are students and teachers with their own professional lives to tend to. In this very concrete sense Thaw is a labor of love, a collaboration, and a risk.

This year's Thaw had humor and style — something I can't say about last year. My first prize for a video with intelligence, pathos, and wit goes to Strong Enough, by Pierre Yves Clouin. The video consists of one full minute of a beetle of some sort, perhaps what Midwesterners call a June Bug, struggling to right itself. It is an accident of these creatures' physiognomy that once flipped onto their large backs, it is very hard for them to get enough leverage with their tiny legs to flip back over. You've all seen it. But did you really look?

Strong Enough affords the pleasure of detail and the excitement of rediscovery: sitting silently in the dark with this enormous moving image as the only distraction, the audience was forced to observe tiny movements of the legs, to hope anxiously for a resolution which of course never comes. It wasn't long before certain members of the audience started to laugh, because it's funny, somehow, sitting there silently rooting for this bug. And, unlike many of the filmmakers who used their space for pompous intellectual explications of work that should have been self-explanatory, Clouin used his program blurb perfectly. He wrote: "I don't need your sympathy." Even without this suggestive comment, we would have laughed because the beetle clearly didn't care if we were watching, wasn't capable of playing it for the camera (God forbid). One could imagine a cartoon version of the same idea done on Sesame Street, but the real "face" of the beetle, which is to say its animal impassivity, lent its actions a certain dignity. It was fantastic: short, simple, and brilliant.

My other absolute favorite video was one of the Juror's shows, Stephanie Gray. In fourteen short pieces, some of them with live sound, Gray explored her own particular perception with grace, wit, and brilliance. Though the pieces were meant to stand alone, certain aspects functioned thematically. For me, it was a feeling of silent perception: insistent shots of buildings, angles, and streets. There was nothing interior, nothing intimate, and yet it all felt very focused from a particular point of view. The second piece, I Luved This City, Gray took the microphone to perform the live vocal track. It was then that audience members who did not already know learned that Gray is hearing impaired. Her voice has that strange, off-key inflection of those who cannot hear themselves. But her narration didn't have anything to do with that. She spoke about all kinds of things, about being cool and about poems and random situations, and some of the time when she spoke, the screen would go dark. I was so primed to be looking, but she made us hear when we wanted to see, she made us strain in reverse. When the images flooded the screen again — all black and white Super 8 — I felt that somewhere a window had opened, and I had entered into these eyes which do not hear, felt this voice which makes no echo.

I think the most conventional answer to the question "What do we have to fear from experimental film?" is this: people are afraid that they will be shocked, and they are afraid they will not be entertained. I'd like to suggest, however, that it goes a little deeper. Americans don't like to feel estranged at the movies. The movies are our home turf.

I think the fear people seem to experience when experimental film comes up is the same fear I struggle against when I'm in a Buenos Aires grocery store and there isn't any black ground pepper. It's like reaching for glass of water on the bedside table and getting an octopus instead. Worse, it's like suddenly entering a world where everyone thinks that's totally normal. They can't imagine it any other way. You're robbed of your outrage — you're just elsewhere, otherwise. There are no words for it, because there is no basis for comparison, no center point to orient the map.

What Hollywood has done, as an export, is make a center point out of images. A shiny shortcut home for me, and a snapshot for them. Only then, once we've gained those thousand words, can we find some of our own, and thereby some basis for comparison. But it isn't fair that they think my country is nothing better than a vendor of cheap thrills and easy resolutions.

Yes, I have felt sick and tired and horrified and lonely here. But I am never, ever bored. I get excited every time something goes right: I'm delighted if I manage to do my laundry, take the bus to another part of the city, order something I like in a cafe. Maybe a good experimental film is like a trip to another hemisphere: alienating, frustrating, but exhilarating, too. If it's good — if the people are more or less friendly, if the weather suits you, if you don't get shot — it might be something you want to do again. It's just as simple as watching a beetle struggle to right itself, or as turning off the lights.

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